Sometimes the world of music throws you a curveball — one so meaty, that you can smack it a thousand feet with a broken bat. A band of four core members from East Los Angeles (adding a fifth member a few years later) has made music for over 30 years, and not a single false note has been sounded in all that time. It’s a rarity that few bands and artists possess. The Kinks come to mind, as does Bruce Springsteen. There are others for whom the argument can be made, but only Los Lobos can make this claim while traversing a cadre of genres.
You want straightforward rock? No problem. Blues? Easy enough. Maybe some rockabilly boogie? Sure. Norteño? Piece of cake. How about a Mexican polka? They laugh at that, and then ask “Do you want that sung in English or Spanish?”. Acoustic ballad? Natch. Bells, whistles, handclaps, and tambourines? Well…
Wolf Tracks: the Best of Los Lobos is the third grouping of hits packaged by the band’s former label. The first was on Slash/Warner Bros., titled Just Another Band from East L.A.. The two-disc package came out in 1993, and charted the band up to the 1992 release, Kiko and the Lavender Moon. Then in 2000, the four-disc El Cancionero: Mas y Mas covered all of the Warner Bros. releases, plus the title song from the first post-W.B. album, This Time, on Hollywood Records. A total of 86 songs were spread over that quartet of CDs, giving the purchaser a smorgasbord of Los Lobos’ styles and sounds. Now in 2006, that package has been simplified to a single disc, with 20 songs, 17 of which can be found on Cancionero. Of the remaining three, one was previously unreleased, one was an album track that just didn’t make the cut on either of the other collections (both were from the recording sessions for The Neighborhood), and the last was from the second post-W.B. release.
Los Lobos was, is, and probably forever will be David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez, Conrad Lozano, and Steve Berlin. Lozano is the easiest to pick out – he’s the bass player; one of the most underrated in the music biz. More often than not, Rosas has a guitar of some sort in his hands. Berlin usually can be found by a keyboard or by a woodwind. Perez used to be the band’s drummer, but he’s switched to guitar. And Hidalgo? Guitar, accordion, mandolin, violin, banjo, several Mexican stringed instruments…oh, and he shares vocal duties with Rosas. (Not that he’s busy or anything, mind you…)
What Wolf Tracks does is that it gives a fair representation of all aspects of the band. In Los Lobos’ career, the band scored a total of two hits: a minor hit with “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”, a rockabilly shaker (no pun intended) with equal amounts of bounciness and heaviness, and a major smash with “La Bamba”; it was this version that was used as the theme song for the movie. And though the band was grateful for the attention it received after “La Bamba”, the Lobos found themselves uncomfortable in the spotlight, and managed to back out into the shadows where they were able to control their output. The beauty of Wolf Tracks is that just about every song on here will cause your body to involuntarily move with the music, be it straight out shaking on “Shakes” and “Don’t Worry Baby” to swaying on “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”.
The secret to the band’s success is that its music, while complex in the variety of instruments used at times, is simplistic in nature. This band does not subscribe to tricky time signature changes, excessive noodling (though they can jam with the best of them), and other odd music markers. If they want to rock out, using “Don’t Worry Baby” as an example, then don’t expect an acoustic passage stuck in the middle of the song. Though their music is surprising and wide-ranging, Los Lobos doesn’t pull any surprises mid-song — you get what you came to hear.
The all-Español “Anselma” is the Mexican polka song alluded to earlier. With Hidalgo manning a mean, but melodic accordion, the song moves along at a brisk pace. I’ve seen crowds do one of those wedding conga lines when they do the song live; accordingly, the band stretches the song out to allow their fans to get their respective dancing joneses out. Fans of the band will smile at the inclusion of such songs as “A Matter of Time”, “Let’s Say Goodnight”, “One Time One Night”, “Come On, Let’s Go”, and “Oh Yeah”. The eerie and spooky “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” is infectious, while “Evangeline” will have butts moving, a-la 50’s sock-hop styling (Berlin’s sax work is outstanding here).
The two Neighborhood songs mentioned earlier are “Jenny’s Got a Pony”, a straight-ahead rocker, and the previously unreleased “Border Town Girl”, a mix of rock and blues with a rockabilly beat. And as far as the comment about handclaps, bells, whistles and tambourines, according to Berlin, the band eschewed all of the above in its songs, thinking it would cheapen what they did. But after 30 years, they decided to unload all these sounds in one particular song — it all worked quite well in the busy, but fun “Good Morning Aztlán”.
As on any hits/best-of collection, the main quibble will be what’s missing, and on Wolf Tracks, there are two qualifying quibbles, namely “Down on the Riverbed” and “Wicked Rain”, and since the disc clocks in at 69 minutes, there was certainly room for at least one, if not both. Also worthy of mention for possible inclusion would be their take on “I Wanna Be Like You”, from the children’s classic movie “Jungle Book”.
What’s on Wolf Tracks: the Best of Los Lobos is a confluence of various musical pigeonholes. It’s loaded with energy, talent, and a spirit to make the best music possible. This band has been together for over 30 years, and kept the same personnel, for a reason: they know what works for them and their fans. This is a band of Latinos that originally signed with a punk label and made “American” music (both North and South), a term applied to another Slash Records band at the time: the Blasters. (Berlin was originally in the Blasters, and switched over when Los Lobos offered him the opportunity to join them.) It will be a long time before a band can play music as diversified as Los Lobos — and play it well. Wolf Tracks is proof positive: Los Lobos is one of the best (and most underrated) bands you’ll ever hear.